I work at a regional university in the United States. Several years ago (before I arrived) our department admitted five years of doctoral students (approximately 50 students) as general admits to a distance doctoral program without assigning chairs.

Now those students are reaching comps and the dissertation. Four faculty left in the last year which is stressing our already over-capacity workloads.

Many students are interested in topics for which we have no faculty experts. We are going to hire a new faculty cohort in the next five years but there is no guarantee those faculty interests will match our students’.

Are faculty obligated to work with and graduate students we did not admit?

Is there a precedent for such a situation?

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    What's your field? This circumstance would be completely ridiculous in my field and the answer would be "Students can't work on arbitrary topics without faculty support so it would never get this far..." Though a "distance doctoral" program also sounds pretty suspect to me.. I'd also suggest omitting the "legally" obligated portion, in any case, typically questions that depend on institutional rules are not well-received. – Bryan Krause Sep 12 at 18:04
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    What is legal or not depends on the country you're in and, possibly, on the agreement signed by the students at the moment of the enrollment. We cannot really tell. – Massimo Ortolano Sep 12 at 18:04
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    It seems that somebody was not really thinking through the implications of admitting all those students. The fact that they are in a distance program is secondary - if you have a bunch of PhD students nearing graduation and a bunch of faculty left, what would you do for them? – Jon Custer Sep 12 at 18:25
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    I doubt that you have individual liability under the law, but the law varies. The university is very possibly open to lawsuit. Legal and moral responsibility don't always align very well, especially in a situation like this. The design of the program should have been very different, but that train has left the station. You have to deal with the crash as best you can. Even in the best case, the reputation of the place will suffer. And note that if there was negligence, then it wasn't a single act in time. What was done in the interim to fix the problem? – Buffy Sep 12 at 19:39
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    Admitting without having a supervisor aligned is bad practice. I have witnessed a case of that and it's not a pretty sight. Highly discouraged. Now that the horse has bolted, you will have to strongly suggest that the students pick their topic amongst the available supervisors with the least overload. – Captain Emacs Sep 13 at 10:08

Even if it's not "distance learning", there is an obvious hazard in admitting doctoral students that do not fit into the capacity of the faculty. It's irresponsible to the point of immorality. Ok, but/and once they're in your program, yes, your program has an ethical and even moral obligation to serve them well.

There is the complication that, if the students are by-accident allowed to toooo freely choose topics, that it is manifestly infeasible to properly advise them. Someone "should have" explained this to them at the outset. In doing a PhD, "distance" or otherwise, one cannot choose a topic first, and somehow insist that the faculty in the immediate vicinity supervise it. (Nor, of course, is it sane to try to do a project independent of an advisor, or significantly outside one's advisor's expertise. It's hard enough to do a PhD project even when one's advisor is an expert on the topic.)


Unfortunately this is not unprescedented. Usually, what happens is:

  1. Too many students are admitted.
  2. Something of value is extracted from the students. Maybe they pay tuition or they serve as TAs for low pay.
  3. The students who do not have supervisors all fail their comprehensive/qualifying exams.

If your department is doing this by accident, my only advice is to stop doing it. If your department is doing it on purpose, then my advise is to start looking for a job in a different university that treats its students better.


Are faculty obligated to work with and graduate students we did not admit?

That's a good question which I can't answer for the US but can sorta answer for the UK so I'll put what I have here in case someone has the same question for a different location.

In most UK universities, with some subject specific variation, you can be assigned PhD students that you did not admit and did not agree to supervise, either by your line manager or by your head of subject/school/college, etc. You have the ability to protest, but in a situation where faculty have left, students have been abandoned, and there are a lot of students that need supervision, you risk appearing uncollegiate because, really, everyone is going to have to take one some of those people. Appearing uncollegiate will likely have an effect on your performance review, on your promotion pathway, and how your colleagues feel about you. Also your line manager and the higher ups, to some degree, get to tell you what your job is and if they tell you your job is supervising some PhD students, unless your contract is very specific, your job is supervising some PhD students.

Indeed, if you ask the University, they will likely say that PhD students are guaranteed supervision, but are not guaranteed supervision by experts in their exact topic. Students often are quite shocked to be told this when it comes up; faculty, of course, hate it too.

  • I think these are excellent points (for the UK system, as you say) and the last paragraph in particular is something that both students and staff are not always made aware of – Yemon Choi Sep 13 at 13:36
  • They (and we) tend to find it out at points of extreme stress for everyone involved, usually when the student finds out the person they hoped to work with is not available. – GrotesqueSI Sep 13 at 13:44
  • @GrotesqueSI A comment from a current PhD candidate in the UK, and technically a distance learner: I am not shocked that my excellent supervisor is not NOW an expert in my specific field of research because I have been researching it, with his guidance, to the point that I know it better than he does. Isn't that what original research is supposed to be about? – JeremyC Sep 13 at 21:46

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